Understanding If Retirement Is Good for You

Retirement sounds great: no boss, do what you want, travel, etc., but does retirement hurt your health and life expectancy? That is a good question, and the answer depends on just what you mean by retirement.

Senior couple camping and eating a snack on a cliff
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Early Retirement Equals Earlier Death?

We all can only dream of early retirement. It sounds wonderful: financial security and time to do whatever you want. Is early retirement a healthy idea, though? A study at Shell Oil company looked into that very question and found that people who retired at age 55 had almost twice the risk of death compared to people who retired at age 60. Here are the details:

  • The study examined the survival of 839 employees who retired at 55 and 1929 employees who retired at 60 and compared them to 900 employees who retired at 65. Women made up only 11% of the study population.
  • The link between early retirement and early death was greater for men. In fact, men who retired at 55 had an 80% greater increase risk than women who retired at 55.
  • People who retired at 60 were no different than people who retired at age 65, in terms of the overall risk of death.
  • It could be that people who retire at 55 have poor health (and therefore chose early retirement).

Retiring at Age 60, Not a Problem for Health

Another study also found that retiring at age 60 seemed to not impact health. In the Whitehall II study researchers follow British civil servants. This gives them access to a huge database of health and demographic information. There have been hundreds of studies from this database and one of them looked at the impact of retiring at age 60 on health. Here’s what they found:

People who retired at age 60 had the same physical and mental health function as people similar to them who were still working. In fact, the retirees’ mental health improved somewhat after retiring. So according to this study, retiring at age 60 is either not harmful or even good for you, especially if you are of a high socioeconomic group.

Retirement in Greece

It’s not all good news, though, for retirement. In one of the most well-done (statistically speaking) studies of retirement and health, researchers found that retiring had a negative impact on health. This study looked at 16,827 men and women in Greece who had not been diagnosed with a health condition, such as diabetes, stroke, cancer or heart disease. It compared those who retired to men and women who were still working (remember, none of them had a major health condition at the beginning of the study). It found that the retirees had a 51% increase in their risk of death (after controlling for things, such as wealth, education, marital status, etc.). Most of the increase in death risk was linked to heart disease and cardiovascular health.

Should You Cancel Your Retirement?

What about just not retiring ever? There are regions where people are healthy and active well into old age. In these places, it is not uncommon for a 90-year-old to be walking several miles a day, helping with the garden and taking care of great-grandchildren. People seem to age well in places, such as Okinawa, the Hunza Valley, and the Vilcabamba. In these regions, the idea of retirement just doesn’t exist. People stay active in their very old age. Basically, they go, go, go and then pass away. They don’t experience long periods of chronic illness or disability. Many researchers believe that the lack of retirement in these areas (along with diet) are the main reasons people age so well there. On the other hand, some researchers have found this to be a longevity myth. Instead, focus on healthy habits and not a number, and you just may avoid some of the age-related health problems so common in older adults

How to Have a Healthy Retirement

All this discussion about retirement and health is arbitrary. What matters for your health is what you are doing to your body and mind. If you retire and sit around all day, your health will deteriorate. If you retire and hit the gym while eating tons of fruits and vegetables, your health will improve. People who are working can have terrible health if they sit around all day and stress out, so forget about whether retirement is healthy or not—look at your daily habits and decide which ones need some improvement. Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Fruits and Vegetables: You need to eat between 5 and 9 servings of fruit and vegetables every day. This is your number one nutritional mission. You can do this simply by adding 2 servings to your day every week. By the end of the month, you’ll be there.
  • Exercise: You need to exercise every day. What you choose for your exercise will depend on your health and your interests. Be sure to do a variety of exercises to build strength, flexibility, cardiovascular health and balance.
  • Brain Health: Your brain needs some exercise too. Find ways to stimulate your brain into learning new things and keep the cobwebs from growing up there.
  • Relaxation: Don’t forget to relax. Some of the most stressed out people I know are retired. They just transfer their workday stress on to their retired lives. Find a structured way to relax every day. Try a meditation program to help you relax and give your brain a workout at the same time.
  • Sleep: All adults need to sleep between 7 and 9 hours every night. As you age, this gets difficult, especially if you are taking medications or have a health condition. Train your body to have excellent sleeping skills, and avoid the bad habits of some retired people (i.e., taking long naps).
  • Relationships: Your relationships with people can help you live longer. Be sure to nurture your friendships and family relationships. If you are away from friends and family, think about volunteering—it's a great way to meet people and get the health benefits of relationships too.
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